Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Benefits of Yoga in Schools

In 1837, Ralph Waldo Emerson stood in front of the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Harvard and made a plea for a change in the way in which American students approach their education. Much to Emerson's style, his speech was laden with the Yogic themes he had acquired in studying the then recently translated Bhagavad Gita (Rice, 2000). Emerson explained that, “the one thing in the world, of value, is the active soul... although in almost all men obstructed and as yet unborn,” due to the constrictions of the institution which always, “stop[s] with some past utterance of [the unobstructed soul]” (Emerson, 1837). This Yogic application on education was revolutionary, and consequently not heard to it's potential when it was presented.
American education has yet to hear Emerson's plea. Students, in their immense variety, are forced into increasingly regimented, standardized systems of education that focus on what has been, rather than preparing students for what is to come. As Americans progress technologically, this schism in practice becomes increasingly apparent; students are disengaged from the information which holds seemingly less relevance to their lives with each passing year. The repercussions are seen at every end of the education spectrum. For example, the student health epidemic of Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD); in which students are being prescribed stimulants at an alarming rate in order to chemically force them to attend to information which has no relevance to their lives (Setlik et al., 2009). Despite policy changes such as No Child Left Behind, students continue to drop out of schools, feeling they are not fit to continue their education (Cataldi & KewalRamani, 2007). And students continue to use and abuse a wide assortment of psychotropic substances, both legally and illegally to curb depression and stress brought on by high stakes testing and monotonous education (Setlik et al., 2009). The educational system is broken, and while Yoga integration certainly will not solve all, or even most of the problems present it is in the very least a promising start.
Despite the early acknowledgement by Emerson of the promise of Yogic thought in aiding education, nearly two hundred years have yet to see much integration. Even with positive quantifiable results from modern scientific studies, a substantial population remains in opposition to the now explicit efforts for including the benefits of Yogic thought. Recent studies have shown Yogic techniques to be useful in a variety of educational situations, including: students with ADHD, stress management, and in students with Intellectual and Developmental Disorders (IDD), as well as showing some support to cognitive function (Granath et al., 2006; Jense et al., 2004; Peck et al., 2005; Uma et al., 1989).
Despite the growing knowledge base surrounding the benefits of Yogic interventions, there are significant segments of the population who are fighting the use of the various techniques in schools. The article, “Yoga in the Public Schools: Diversity, Democracy and the Use of Critical Thinking in Educational Debates,” highlights that a primary underlying factor for the perpetuation of discomfort with Yoga in schools lays in the influence of Abrahamic religions on Western society. The article explains that, “some Christian groups... have vocalized their belief that the introduction of Yoga violates the separation of church and state” (Douglass, 2010, p.163). This view is a complete misunderstanding of what the phrase separation of church and state really means. This phrase is a simplification of two primary concerns, 1) that any establishment of religion is not directly pulling any influence within the government, and, 2) that people should not impose their beliefs on each other. Considering the first concern, Yoga is a philosophy that teeters into the realm of spirituality, but is not an organized religion. There is no fundamental establishment of Yoga which is exerting pressure to train students to be yogis. The drive for inclusion of Yogic practice in schools is based wholly on the results of Western scientific testing. Regarding the second concern, the inclusion of Yogic thought is not an imposition on beliefs, it is a familiarization with fundamentals. To remove religion from all aspects of the public realm is both impossible, and frankly, negligent. Douglass puts it well when she states America has a, “need for education that clearly articulates the differences and similarities between the world religions;” if we do not, the people of America may be incapable of making an informed decision about their spirituality (2010, p.166). The capability of the population to make informed decisions in all aspects of life is the backbone assumption of Democracy; limiting a student's exposure to information or methodologies is fundamentally undemocratic. The familiarization of students with Yogic philosophy and spirituality is a pertinent aspect of understanding half of the world's population; just as understanding Greco-Roman philosophy and Christian spirituality is pertinent to the study of the West. To study philosophy and spirituality is not an imposition of beliefs; understanding is not the equivalent of faith.
The recognized benefits of various aspects of Yoga being included in schooling are profound. Various practices have a wide range of effects which fall into both categories of being counteractive to student hinderances as well as promoting efficacy in academics. From the first category, studies have shown therapeutic benefit to students with attention problems, stress management problems, as well as those with an IDD (Granath et al., 2006; Jense et al., 2004; Peck et al., 2005; Uma et al., 1989). From the second, there is some argument for the improvement of cognitive function, motor function, pre-conscious nervous function, as well as general physiological benefits (Marjunath & Telles, 2004; Telles et al., 1993; Telles et al., 1997).
Attention Disorders
A primary focus of the major schools of Yogic thought, Hatha Yoga and Raja Yoga, is to achieve optimal utility of cognitive function (Muktibodhananda, 2009). While the goals of these schools lay in the realm of spirituality, seeking to clear the mind wholly for the hope of finding insight within one's mind, the function of their practice out-of-context is unaltered; this is the basis underlying the benefits of Yoga in curbing attention problems. Through developing the ability to clear, or focus the mind, a student would hopefully be able to internally gauge their mind's tendency for distraction. Jense et al. investigated the benefits of Yoga practice on boys diagnosed with ADHD and found that the practice of pranayama (breathing techniques), asana (physical postures), and meditation/ deep relaxation showed some benefit when coupled with conventional drug therapy (Jense et al., 2004, p.205). Alternatively, Peck et al. researched the benefits of a similar therapy for children with attention problems not formally diagnosed as ADHD complex. Their findings were that, yoga may become a promising alternative or complement to behavioral and medical interventions that are commonly used” (Peck, 2005, p. 422). These findings lie parallel to the Yogic theory behind them. The difference in populations between these two studies lies in the former possessing physical differences that lead to substantial attention issues; this may potentially be curbed by Yogic practice, but it would likely need to be far more extensive than that of the study. The latter showed great promise because the epidemic of attention issues (other than physiological ADHD) is primarily caused by the high degree of stimulation present in the contemporary American child's life; they are overstimulated, and thus have difficulty attending to traditional tasks within common classroom situations (Alvermann, 2007).
Stress Management
Another fundamental faculty of the Yogic practice is the tempering of mood. In the practice of meditation, practitioners seek to even themselves, so that they act according to 'right action,' rather than in obligatory reaction to emotional stimulus. Seeking this capacity in terms of Yogic philosophy is seeking spiritual growth, but possessing this capacity is not limited to the spiritual. The natural tendency for people is to act reactionary to their emotions, controlling this reaction is an issue that everyone deals with along the lines of development. Stress results from fear, evolutionarily as a result of the fight or flight response, and the release of adrenaline. In modern civilization, the conventional sense of fear is a far cry from what people currently fear. In schools, students are placed in extremely high-stakes environments, feeling the need to achieve at the top of many peers in all aspects of life, socio-cultural, athletics, cognizance, economically, and the list goes on. These unending fears develop into chronic stress on students' physiological bodies. The immediate effects can include emotional duress, underachievement, and at times, paradoxically procrastination. The long term issues can be heart disease, and decreased cognitive function. Developing a capacity for the calming of one's mind, of one's fears would lead to a decrease in stress, and a generally more productive, healthier lifestyle. Granath et al. in a study comparing the effectivity of a stress management program to a program of Kundalini Yoga, found that both were equivalently effective in the curbing of stress management problems (Granath et al., 2006). It should be noted that while they were equal in the scales measured, cognitive behavioral therapy is a psychological technique developed purely for the task of developing stress management. Kundalini Yoga has the equivalent effect, but it carries with it substantial ulterior benefits; the most notably recognized being increased strength and flexibility. As well, with further study, and the development of a deeper understanding of the functions of Yogic practices, the effectivity of Kundalini on stress could show deeper insight into the functions of stress on the body, and how to counteract or curb it.
Intellectual and Developmental Disorders
The added benefit of the development of the two faculties mentioned, is an improvement of efficacy in cognitive function. This has a benefit on the whole person, Uma et al. highlight, “It is known that regular practice of yoga builds up the personality at all levels, i.e. physical, mental, intellectual and emotional, in normal persons” (Uma et al., 1989, p.5). While in all situations of IDD the underlying basis for cognitive limitations is physiological underdevelopment, or malformation, it would be presumptuous to say that individuals of this population are wholly incapable of benefitting from similar practices of Yoga. In a year long study comparing students of low cognitive function who practice Yoga for an hour a day in school against an equivalent population who continued with standard curriculum, it was found that:
The results from this study clearly show that children with [IDD] also improve considerably by yogic practices. It has been found especially useful in improving the intellectual
performance and social adaptation in all three categories of retardation under study, more so in the moderate and mild group. (Uma et al., 1989, p.5)
Through the practice of pranayama, yogic stretching, yogasana, deep relaxation, and meditation; students showed marked increases in motor function as well as cognitive functioning. The focus of Yoga on the conscious control of the mind lends to it's ability to improve cognitive function; improving the efficacy of thought patterns, a practitioner is capable of utilizing their mind to a higher degree of function. This function is particularly beneficial to students with existing cognitive difficulties because even a slight increase in efficacy could greatly improve their capabilities within the classroom.
Cognitive Function
In addition to the benefits of Yoga practice on the cognition of struggling individuals, studies have shown a marked increase in some facets of memory with the practice of Yoga as well. In a study comparing students from Yoga camp, fine arts camp, and a control group, Manjunath and Telles have found that the, “study suggests that
yoga practice, including physical postures,
yoga breathing, meditation and guided relaxation improves delayed recall of spatial
information;” this study tested both visual/spacial memory as well as verbal memory, the only significant change was in spacial memory with the Yoga group (Marjunath and Telles, 2004, p.358). The Yoga camp lasted for ten days, six hours were devoted to Yogic studies (consisting of asana, pranayama, kriya, meditation, deep relaxation, and ethical storytelling), the remaining two hours were devoted to games. Students were tested before the first day, and on the last day. While this is substantially more time than would be allocated within a school environment, the potential benefits should not be neglected. Increased visual-spatial memory in students would be
beneficial for a variety of circumstances: visual arts classes, workshop classes, mathematics, abstracted sciences, and navigation to name a few (Gardner, 1993).
Motor Function
In addition to the faculties developed to steady the mind, the practice of Yoga also has the effect of steadying the body. This effect is the display of a conscious development to control motor functioning. In a comparison between students trained in Yoga and a control group, Telles et al. found that, “results suggest that 10 days training in Yoga can on immediate retest significantly show improved static motor performance;” continued practice would likely maintain, if not further this improvement (Telles et al., 1993, p.2). This study had a similar structure to the previously mentioned studies, with the addition tratakas (eye cleaning exercises), to the Yoga group's practice (1993, p.2). This study is a signifier of an individual's development of greater control over their motor function. Development of this faculty in students is beneficial through the development of physical efficacy; a more conscious awareness and control of oneself in relation to her environment. Developing physical efficacy would have broad reaching benefits for students, improvements in capabilities and efficiency relating to any activities involving physical movement: arts, physical sciences, playing music, athletics, operating equipment/ technology.
Physiological Health
Increases in strength and flexibility are commonly accepted physiological benefits of the practice of Yoga. In addition, there has been research into the benefit of Yoga practice on pre-conscious nervous function (heart-rate, breathing-rate, breathing rhythm) (Telles et al., 1997, p. 5). In a study comparing a group of girls in a community home who practiced Yoga to a group of girls who played games which promoted exercise, Telles et al. found, “After six months of practice of the yoga or games significantly reduced the Community Home girls' heart rates. [Only] the yoga group showed a significant reduction in the rate of respiration after 6 mo... breathing was more regular in this group after 6 mo" (1997, p. 5). While these benefits do not have a direct benefit on academics, it should be noted that school is a place of development for the whole person; these changes in pre-conscious nervous function are a general benefit to the well-being of an individual, and should not be ignored due to a lack of academic 'practicality'.
With an ever increasing research base surrounding the benefits of Yogic practice on the public, as well as on students, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the inclusion of Yoga practice in schools would be beneficial. While there continues to be opposition to this inclusion, it is colored with Western imposition, and is fundamentally undemocratic. Yoga's connection to philosophy and spirituality is one of it's most pertinent aspects; Yoga is a fundamental backdrop to the study of Eastern humanities. A truly democratic education would not neglect the fundamentals from half of the greatest philosophical dichotomy in civilization. Atop this, there is substantive benefit derived from the practice of Yoga for students. The common problems of attention, stress, and cognitive struggles all are benefitted by a routine Yoga practice. As well, the areas of cognitive efficacy, physical efficacy, and pre-conscious neural activity all show marked increases after substantive Yoga practice in a general student population. Yoga is an relevant and beneficial area of study for students, and should not be neglected, or pushed aside because of Abrahamic religiosity or Western pride.

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1 comment:

  1. i completely agree that children are not retaining all the information that is being thrown at them because of lack of interest. We cannot force our children into learning and that is what American schools are constantly doing, children are being left behind because they are simply uninterested.I can understand the opposition with the yogic theory into the classroom but do not agree with it. The theory is stating that reflection should be incorporated into curriculum's and that should not be confused with religious ideas."To study philosophy and spirituality is not an imposition of beliefs; understanding is not the equivalent of faith." (So true).Coming from my own personal diagnosis of an attention disorder, I feel that the use of Yoga as a substitute for medicine will only work if the child is interested in the practice. As for stress, yoga is the perfection solution allowing you to escape into a different mindset and forgetting reality.